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Professor Zhiguo Yuan AM is elevating water research

Already one of Australia's most esteemed engineers, Professor Zhiguo Yuan, Director of the University of Queensland's Advanced Water Management Centre, has been appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to science through urban water management, and to higher education.

The Australian Water Association sat down with Yuan last year to learn more about his research and bringing positive change to the industry.

Australian Water Association (AWA): As the University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre (AWMC) director, what are some of your areas of focus?

Professor Zhiguo Yuan: My research focuses on the development of innovative solutions for urban water management through effective integration of fundamental science and applied engineering. It’s specifically around energy recovery and infrastructure protection – having developed a suite of technologies to enhance energy recovery from wastewater, and to manage sewer corrosion and odour problems. The potential and impact of these is huge, for utilities to achieve sustainable wastewater management.

AWA: What made you switch to a future in the water sector after pursuing a PhD in aeronautical engineering? 

Prof Yuan: I changed my area of research to wastewater management as there was a disconnection between my research and industry application in the aeronautical sector some two decades ago. There was not much money to put aeronautical theory into practice during that time. I saw more value in a future in water, so environmental engineering became my choice. Since then, over the last 24 years or so, my research has shifted into many areas within water.

I now lead a team of more than 100 people across various water projects and some of the technologies developed have been licensed or are now being tested on a pilot scale.

AWA: Having been in the water industry for a significant amount of time, what are some areas that need focus?

Prof Yuan: Water security is one of the biggest concerns, alongside sustainable wastewater management.

Wastewater collection infrastructure is also something that needs to be focused on, with many pipes collapsing prematurely as a result of corrosion, and this issue will become more serious with more pipes reaching the end of their designed lives.

AWA: What steps have you taken to engage with government and industry to improve water issues?

Prof Yuan: It’s one of the most important things for researchers, having to reach out to these people and talk in a language that we all understand.

In saying that, the Federal Government, through the Australian Research Council and other funding bodies, and the state governments have some great schemes that encourage collaboration between research organisations and industry partners. I have been using this mechanism to make sure that the fundamental research we do is applicable to industry problems and deliver solutions.

Such collaborations enable us to identify fundamental research questions relevant to industry, work closely with industry partners to apply these theories or fundamental discoveries, then make sure these problems get solved.

AWA: You’ve founded three biotechnology companies. What do they bring to market?

Prof Yuan: I founded three biotechnology businesses, namely SeweX, Cloevis and Lodomat. SeweX and Cloevis are related to sewer corrosion and odour management in sewers. SeweX is a mathematical tool that supports proactive sewer management. We do consulting services to water utilities for this.

Cloevis removes the biofilms that adhere to the inner surfaces of wastewater force main walls and also removes the underlying sulfate reducing bacteria that produce hydrogen sulphide – targeting the very source of the sulphide problem.

Lodomat is different from the other two – it is a suite of technologies that aid utilities to recover more energy from wastewater. It helps utilities meet their pollutant removal targets but at the same time, maximise energy production from wastewater. I started these businesses to address gaps in the market and in response to demand in the industry. Through establishing these businesses, we reach out to the global industry to achieve wider uptake of the innovative technologies we developed.

Professor Zhiguo Yuan AM in his lab. Professor Yuan is the founder of three biotechnology companies.

AWA: You’ve won a few accolades in the industry. What do they mean to you?

Prof Yuan: I have won over $40 million in competitive research funding since 2001, including over 20 ARC Discovery and Linkage grants as a Chief Investigator.

I have also been an Executive of the $117 million Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities
and Leader of the Future Technologies Program.

I am an International Water Association (IWA) Fellow and was named as one of Engineers Australia’s Top 100 Most Influential Engineers for 2015. I am also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and was awarded the very prestigious ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship in 2017, which only 17 people in the nation get in the year.

It’s a pinnacle in one’s academic career and I feel very privileged to have been awarded this Fellowship. My Laureate Fellowship project builds upon and extends to what I’ve been working on for the past 10 to 15 years.

My previous work in bioenergy recovery focused on the production of biogas from wastewater as a renewable energy source. My Laureate Fellowship project aims to convert biogas to some forms of liquid chemicals. This adds more value to biogas in comparison to the current practice to convert it to electricity or heat energy. All of the above honours were earned through team efforts – they are indeed recognitions of the wonderful team I have been leading throughout.

AWA: How has your work driven support for the Australian water industry? 

Prof Yuan: My research has delivered documented savings of over $400 million to the Australian water industry. My achievements and leadership have been recognised through national and international awards, with the most recent being the 2015 ATSE Clunies Ross Award and the IWA 2014 Global Project Innovation Award (Applied Research Category) – as Project Leader.

All this has given the work that I’ve done some coverage but that also means that the industry is more aware of these solutions and the work that my team is doing to improve issues within the water industry.

It also opens up many avenues for the industry to uptake these technologies.

AWA: Having done a wide spectrum of work in the water industry, what are some things Australia should watch out for?   

Prof Yuan: Our population is growing, we’re facing climate changes, and there’s continuous urbanisation. These three major things bring about ‘big picture’ questions such as: how do we more efficiently manage our water resources?

We need to make sure that our cities have enough water to make up for these three changes. And with problems happening on a global scale, as seen in Cape Town, it’s evident that cities may run out of drinkable water.

We don’t want that to happen here and we have to make sure we can cope with another 10-year drought. Australia is already becoming much more well-equipped with alternative infrastructure, such as water recycling schemes, desalination plants, in place to enhance water security.

There is also an increasing emphasis on water demand management through water sensitive urban design and development of water sensitive communities.

Population growth and increasing living standards mean more demand for food, the production of which means more water – massive amounts of water – is needed for agriculture. Keeping that in mind, we may need some revolutionary ideas to ensure this water-food security and sustainability going into the future.

First published as 'Elevating water research' in Current magazine May 2018.